Costa Rica & A quick escape to Panama (without a rental car)
A rugged, rainforested Central American country with coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific. Though its capital is home to cultural institutions like the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, known for its beaches, volcanoes, and biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of a protected jungle, teeming with wildlife including spider monkeys and quetzal birds.
2 weeks: Itinerary
[Note that December is considered the high season. In low season the prices of accommodation will be significantly cheaper.]
Day 1 / San Jose
Most guide books and travellers will tell you that the capital is not worth staying in for more than a day or two. Unless you are interested in the museums or there is some special event happening in the city, we suggest heading out of San Jose as soon as possible if you have two weeks.
All the best stuff to see is in the wild!
We stayed one night in the countryside outside the main city. Upon arriving at the airport, we took a cheap 20-minute bus to Heredia, a laidback university town on the fringe of San Jose. We stopped for lunch and an Imperial, the local beer, in the sunny main square. We noticed that everyone was wearing red and yellow football kits… a big final was happening between rival teams that afternoon. After lunch, we bought some supplies in the supermarket to make us sandwiches for the following day and called an Uber to our Airbnb An entire Villa, right in the middle of a CoffeeRanch (check also this videos: OurStay, Rainbow, RanchCoffee) in Concepcion de San Isidrio, a 30 minute drive away.
Here you can also find a £25 AirBnB discount toward your 1 trip on the platform, good help for you, and your friends if you never used Airbnb, you will definitely love the experience.
Claim it here: YourFirstAirbnbTrip
[Note that Uber is technically illegal in Costa Rica. However, many Ticos use it since it is about three times cheaper than the local taxis. In the rare event you get stopped by the authorities, saying you are friends with the driver should be enough to stop any hassle].
Our Airbnb host was a friendly American guy called Phil. His place was a working coffee ranch up in the hills with orange trees, rainbows, dogs, and gorgeous panoramic views. After plonking our backpacks in the room, we walked down to the small village plaza. We discovered that we were lucky to arrive on the day of the annual village fair. The locals prepared us some tamales, rice and chicken which we ate while they danced and the kids played on the fairground rides. We came home and slept solidly after our long haul flight.
Day 2 / Puerto Viejo
Early the next morning, after our fresh coffee, Phil called us a taxi to the bus terminal in San Jose, where we planned to take the 8 am bus to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. This didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Firstly, we went to the wrong terminal, although fortunately, it wasn’t far from the MEPE terminal we needed. [There are many bus terminals in San Jose … check timetables and destinations beforehand if you can to avoid waiting around!]. Secondly, once we were on the bus, the scenic drive ground to a halt when we ran into highway repairs. We were stuck in traffic for two hours. Luckily, we had prepared sandwiches… most of the passenger’s stomachs were growling by the time we stopped in Limon! We continued down the coast to Puerto Viejo, arriving at around 5 pm. Our grumbling at the bus journey instantly melted away with the town’s relaxed vibe… people cycling around with surfboards and sipping coconuts, aromas of marijuana and jerk chicken filling the air. We checked into the beachfront Cabinas Yucca and headed out for cocktails and ceviche. Here’s the hostel, a really nice place to spend a couple of nights, right in front of the beach, check it out: CabinasYucca
We strolled around in the warm night and chatted to locals on the beach. We also arranged a 2 day and 2-night tour to Bocas Del Toro [in Panama] with an agency called Costa Rica Tours for the next day. Since they would pick us up early the following morning, and we were tired from the long bus ride, we avoided the Puerto Viejo party scene.. although there is plenty of it to enjoy!
Day 3 – 4 / Bocas del Toro
We got picked up in a shuttle bus which drove us to the Panamanian border. Here we ran into another hitch. The computers at border control were running painstakingly slowly. It took around twenty minutes to process and stamp just one person’s passport. A long queue stretched out under the baking hot sun.
Luckily, we had arrived early with the tour group and were near the front, but still had to wait around two hours for what normally would have been a quick process. Once we finally crossed the bridge to Panama, we drove to get a boat to Bocas del Toro, a cluster of perfect Caribbean islands.
The tour was very well organized and good value. The first day we were free to explore the islands on our own. The second day, a hilarious guide took us to visit some of the best spots on his boat, which thumped out reggaeton and other Caribbean music. We saw starfish, dolphins, sloths, parrots, colourful coral and parrotfish. We snorkelled and hiked around Cayo Zapatilla’s powder sands and turquoise water.
We had a delicious fish lunch in a floating restaurant. Both nights we were put up in the lovely Swan’s Cay hotel with a pool and a generous breakfast included. For dinner, to change from beans and rice, we had a pizza at La Italiana one night and an Indian curry at Om Café the next.
If you can squeeze a quick tour to Panama from Costa Rica into your trip, it is well worth it! [Note that Panama uses US dollars, take out enough for your stay!].
Day 5 / Puerto Viejo
The road back to Puerto Viejo was much quicker as the border people had sorted out the computers. We arrived in the afternoon, checked into Lazy Loft hostel, picked up some weed and hiked to a nearby beach. When it got dark, we walked back to town through the jungle and had coconut shrimps for dinner in a soda [sodas are local eateries in Costa Rica, the best place for authentic and cheap meals]. The hostel threw a party that night which went on into the early hours.
Day 6 / Cahuita
The next day we took a 25-minute bus to Cahuita, up the coast from Puerto Viejo. We actually preferred it to Puerto Viejo! The national park is small but amazing, and the only one in Costa Rica without an entry fee [you pay what you want as a donation]. It has less tourists than Manuel Antonio and because it is smaller you have a better chance of spotting animals… We went without a guide but after walking only fifteen minutes a group of capuchin monkeys started leaping around us! We also saw a spider monkey, a racoon, an agouti and plenty of birds. The beach running along the edge of the park is gorgeous to have a dip and sunbathe to the sound of howler monkeys! After leaving the park we had a delicious coconut ice cream, walked over to the black sand beach, Playa Negra, which turned a dreamy misty colour at sunset. After our final Caribbean fish dinner, we went to sleep in the Secret Garden Hostel, which is perfectly located and run by a nice French couple. It has a gorgeous garden with hammocks and occasionally some animal visitors. Sadly only stayed one night in Cahuita as we woke very early the next morning for the longest journey of our holiday… a 10 hour trip to Arenal.
Our accommodation: Secret Garden Hostel
Have here your £25 Discount: Your First Trip
Day 7 – 8 / Arenal
Our travel day to Arenal was one of ups and downs. At 5.30am our bus arrived, late, to take us from Cahuita to San Jose. We arrived around 11am and went to catch a connecting bus to La Fortuna [from the 7-10 Terminal]. Unfortunately, this was the weekend before Christmas and a long queue at the ticket booth meant it would be impossible to buy tickets before the last bus to La Fortuna at 11.30. We had some empanadas and gallo pinto [traditional Costa Rican beans and rice] for brunch, weighed our options and decided to take a shared taxi for the 3 hour drive. We haggled with a taxi driver to take us for $17 each. This turned out to be the worst moment of the trip. Just before we set off, a man paid the driver to shove his drunk relative [presumably a relative!] into the back seat with us. For the entire ride [which turned into a 4 hour ride since all the roads were blocked for a cycling marathon] this drunk man fell asleep on top of us, snoring and filling the car with a fishy stench of piss and chip oil. The driver opened all the windows, preferring to get spattered by the heavy rain outside than suffocate inside. When we finally arrived at La Fortuna, we went to get some celebratory ice cream and coconut flan in a soda.
We took a 15 minute taxi from the centre of La Fortuna to our hotel, Arenal Lodge and Springs. This hotel was our Christmas present to ourselves… and it did not disappoint. The place had thermal springs dotted throughout a beautiful exotic garden full of hummingbirds. The hospitality and restaurant food was excellent. We had an amazing view of the Arenal volcano from our bedroom, which was impeccably clean and comfortable. The best thing was that the pools were open all night, so we could have cocktails and stargaze in a hot bath to the noise of the jungle… pretty cool!
The next day, we went horseriding through Arenal national park [there are countless activities on offer in Arenal: cocoa farm tours, rafting, nocturnal animal hikes etc. Choose what you like!]. Our horses Palomino and Snake carried us up the mountain, and when we reached the top we did a short hike down to La Fortuna waterfall. We had a literally breathtaking swim in the water, and trekked back up across a canopy bridge to meet our horses again. I definitely recommend doing a horse ride at some point in Costa Rica… if not through a forest then maybe on a beach, there are plenty of tour options!
Day 9 – 10 / Monteverde
From the hotel, we took a taxi-boat-taxi ride to Monteverde. This trip took us across Arenal lake, with stunning volcano views, and then through the zig zagging hills (the landscape in this part of Costa Rica is gorgeous!) until we finally arrived at sunset. We went to our Hostel Cattleya – a small, brand new and friendly budget option just outside the city centre. The rooms were very basic but very clean, and the host was super helpful. Here in Monteverde you can find & buy some really nice, fresh coffee to take at home with you. After exploring a bit we went into town and had dinner in the Treehouse restaurant. To be honest, this was not the best – if you want to go for a fancy meal, go instead to Amy’s, the food was much better…we treated ourselves to a nice Christmas meal there! We spent the rest of Christmas Eve drinking with our new friends at the hostel drinking, laughing and talking all night.
The next morning we had breakfast (included at Cattleya) and went to climb the ficus trees. This is a fun (and free!) adventurous activity which took up most of the morning. In the afternoon, we went to the cloud forest where we saw a raccoon and other animals on the way, so cool! There are different paths you can take to hike around the forest, is not that challenging, just bring appropriate shoes for the walk.
This was an absolutely beautiful place, so eerie and magical!
Day 11 – 12 / Manuel Antonio
We took a shuttle from Monteverde to Quepos, just outside Manuel Antonio National park. This was a long journey but on the way we passed Crocodile Bridge, where you could spot at least ten giant crocs on the riverbed below! Once we arrived in Quepos, we checked in to Pura Vida Hostel (this place was a bit grimy to be honest. But it was only a short walk into town and the bus to the beach / National Park stopped in front of it).
Espadilla beach was a nice place to spend an afternoon. It is crawling with animals – while we had cocktails, we spotted loads of monkeys and even a Jesus lizard! We stayed until the sun went down over the Pacific and the whole sky went pink and red. Then we got the bus back to Quepos where we had dinner and an ice cream (We wanted to have dinner in Soda Sanchez but it was too busy!)
The next day we went to Manuel Antonio – big mistake to go at peak time in peak season! The queue was horrendous so we paid to go in with a guided tour and skip the queue. Although we saw some amazing things – a baby sloth! A baby hummingbird sleeping in a nest! – the crowds of tourists made it feel less magical than the national park in Cahuita. The beach was beautiful, and we had a dip in the sea and some fresh icy coconut water before going back to Quepos and catching a bus to Uvita in the evening.
Day 12 – 13 / Uvita
Uvita’s Marine National Park is much less touristy than Manuel Antonio – and so much better for it! We stayed at Karandi Hostel – a brand-new, sparkling clean and friendly place, which welcomed us with a barbecue. Our host recommended we get up early at 6am to visit the park, so we could skip the entry fee. The only problem was that the tide was so high at this time… we ended up having to swim parts of the way there along the coast ahah (an issue as we were carrying a bag with our camera and valuables in it!). However, the tricky access to the park was worth it.
The beaches in the park are wide, wild, and Jurassic Park-like…and we had them all to ourselves! Although we didn’t see any whales (which come to visit this spot almost year-round!), we saw iguanas, crabs and pelicans. We also walked along the whale’s tail sandbank – a cool natural phenomenon. We made friends with the park ranger (who was also there as early as us) who gave us some coconuts to drink and recommended we have lunch at Las Esferas, a cheap beach-side place which served delicious fish and casados.
Our second night in Uvita we spent at El Toboso, a treehouse hostel down the road from Karandi. It was a great wild experience to sleep in the trees – everything was made of wood and super clean, and close to the beach where we had a beer under the stars.
The breakfast served at El Toboso was also delicious and generous.
Day 14 / Dominical
Our final day was in the surfer and hippie mecca – Dominical. This place oozes chill. We stayed in Cool Vibes Hostel, our room wasn’t the best but the hostel in general was airy and friendly with a big communal kitchen and outdoor space. It’s right on the beach too, which has big waves for surfers (you can rent a surfboard for cheap prices at the hostel).
Be careful when swimming here as the currents are strong!
Dominical has great little sodas like Su Raza, fresh juices and smoothies, and beachfront market stalls for buying souvenirs (where I bought some postcards and magnets). We went to watch an amazing orange sunset, and in the evening, we had beers, listened to live music in a bar & enjoyed the last moments of Pura Vida vibes lifestyle.
Day 15 / Back to San Jose
From Dominical, we took a bus back to San Jose (around 3 hours). We spent our final night in a pretty swanky-Airbnb-apartment in Santa Ana before our flight home (via Mexico, where we had a fun quick 8 hour visit to Mexico City on New Year’s Eve… but that’s another story for another time!).
This is it for Costa Rica! 🥥🌴
If you have any questions, let us know & leave a comment below 😎